Why I needed #DisabilityEd…

7th June 2018

Ruth Golding recently announced #DisabilityEd’s launch in TES. This much needed organisation will raise awareness for teachers with invisible and physical disabilities, psychological conditions, autism, chronic diseases and cancer. As an ex-teacher and Type 1 diabetic, I welcome this news. Teaching whilst also managing a chronic disease can be tough. Like 37% of diabetics, diabetes caused me trouble at work. Although I’m not in the classroom anymore, here are 2 reasons why I really needed #DisabilityEd:

1.      Having the confidence to tell it how it is

In some parts of my teaching career, I was cautious about telling other staff about my diabetes. Although I told people I had diabetes, I never went into detail. I didn’t tell them about how important it was for me to consistently measure my blood sugars or work out how much carbohydrate was in food to then calculate how much insulin I should take. I didn’t tell them about how drained I felt when my blood sugars yo-yo’d between 1.5mmol/l and 25.5 mmol/l (a non-diabetic person’s blood glucose is around 4.0 to 5.4 mmol/l when fasting). I never made it clear how serious hypoglaecmia  (low blood sugars) and hyperglycaemia (high blood sugars) is. I didn’t tell anyone about the relationship between diabetes and strokes, amputations and heart attacks. I downplayed it all.

The reasons I minimised the severity of my chronic disease were two-fold: my personality and school culture. Teamed together, these two things meant I didn’t get the support I needed.

I’m a quietly competitive person. Whilst I don’t feel comfortable broadcasting my achievements, I like to know I’m doing well. I found schools to be fiercely competitive work environments. For the most part, I suited this way of working. The competitiveness spurred me on to improve and pushed me beyond my comfort zone. However, this culture was not good for me managing my health. I didn’t want my diabetes to be viewed as something that held me back or made me weak. I never used it as an excuse and I didn’t want it to be seen as one. Unfortunately, at times, this led to me ignoring my diabetes. I didn’t attend doctors’ appointments. I also prioritised late-night planning and marking over maintaining steady blood sugars. This meant that I sometimes had hypos at night time, went to work the next day and just didn’t tell anyone. After a weekend work session, I fell asleep, had a hypo, started to fit, smashed my chin on my bed-side table and ended up like this:

Luckily, I recovered quickly after having some sugar and my chin was sewn up. I’m also pleased to say incidents like this aren’t a common occurrence. However, even with a hugely supportive team and amazing friends, social stigma plagued me. No one ever said to me “don’t take your diabetes seriously because teaching is more important” and I very much doubt that any of my colleagues ever thought it. Quite the opposite. It was the fear of being ‘different’ that put me off opening up. This fear was intensified whenever I started at a new school. I didn’t want diabetes to be part of my teacher-identity. I never knowingly met other teachers with chronic illnesses or disabilities. I didn’t know how I should talk about my diabetes with other staff. I didn’t know how to tell people that I needed adjustments to my working week so that I could regularly check my bloods and eat/inject as necessary. I just didn’t have the confidence to tell it how it really was.

Had I had access to a network of teachers facing similar issues, I think I’d have felt more confident to address the problems I had. Furthermore, raising awareness about teachers with chronic diseases and disabilities would have helped to break down the social stigma of being ‘different.’ #DisabilityEd could achieve this.

2.      Space to prioritise my health

In my experience, schools weren’t the kind of places where time off was acceptable. Some schools I worked in had high levels of staff absence. I don’t know the exact reasons for this, but I witnessed the consequences. Workloads increased for non-absent staff (including me) because of the need to cover lessons. This inspired resentment for those who were ‘off ill’ and a celebration of those who never were. Consequently, I ended up working in an environment where I often heard statements like this:

[FROM OTHER TEACHERS]: “Oh [NAME] is off again…can you believe it? Pffft!”

[FROM MOST NON-ABSENT STAFF]: “I’ve never taken a day off! Even when I’m ill, I just wouldn’t do it!”

Given the logistical issues that staff absence caused, Senior Leaders took action. We were told that all doctors’ and dentists’ visits must be arranged during school holidays. This message probably wasn’t directed at me. Nevertheless, I took it on board.

As a teacher, the only time I was ‘off ill’ was when I had chicken pox and one nasty tummy bug where I was sent home from an inset day. I’m not sure there were many times where I wasn’t fit to work and came in anyway, but I did need time to attend doctor’s appointments in regards to my diabetes. Check-ups are important so that potential problems with things like my eyes; my circulation and my heart can be detected. These appointments usually take a few hours, but don’t require an entire day’s leave. However, in some schools, I was so fearful of being labelled as an absentee that I just didn’t go to them when the only available slot was in term time. I didn’t even ask if I could. I’m certain that the staff who made comments like the ones above didn’t mean to make me feel like this and I cannot fully blame them for my reaction. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the know-how or the courage to speak up. In a culture where absence was not acceptable, I didn’t feel like I had space to prioritise my health.

If #DisabilityEd can raise awareness, perhaps in the future more teachers will accept that it’s OK to take time off when necessary.

I wish #DisabilityEd the best of luck in the coming months and years. Although I cannot speak on behalf of all teachers with Type 1 diabetes, I think a network that gives a voice to teachers with disabilities and chronic diseases will provide many people with needed support. When I was teaching, I needed #DisabilityEd and I’m sure many current teachers still do.